Monday, June 23, 2014

Editor's Notes #13: My MS Doesn't Need That Much Red Ink


There's nothing like the feeling of writing. Letting out the creativity that's in your brain, putting it on paper (or the virtual paper of a Word doc) and honing it to perfection. Scenes are written, critiqued, and rewritten. Verbs are made stronger. Words are added to engage all the senses. You have a masterpiece on your hands.

With the confidence that can only come from naiveté, you hand it over to an editor for "a quick proof."

Sucker.

When I talk to people before doing an evaluation, I've found most of them believe their manuscripts only need a light edit, similar to the "quick once-over." I am sorry to report that most manuscripts need more than a passing glance. Indeed, copy editors can't afford to gloss over the manuscripts entrusted to their care. If we do our jobs properly, we read every word, multiple times.

The funny thing about reading each word is that it enables mistakes to be found. Sometimes there are a lot of them, and sometimes only a few, but even the most careful writer makes mistakes. It's just the way it goes.

In one of life's ironies, the writers who think they need the most help are rarely those who have the most errors in their manuscripts. Even so, the typical copy edit looks worse than it is, with all that red ink standing out so starkly against the black and white.

You'll just have to trust me when I say copy editors—well, most of them, anyway—don't take sadistic pleasure in marking up manuscripts. I know I don't. There's a satisfaction that comes from knowing I'm helping someone's work to look its best, but when there are a lot of corrections to be made, my feelings run more toward the nervous side. Will the author think I'm taking liberties that aren't mine to take? Will he resent my advice? Will she wonder if I really know what I'm talking about? Am I being too bossy?

Those who have worked with me know I'm a big fan of margin notes. I like to use the margin as an easy means of communication between me and the author. I can write things as I think of them, where they apply, so I don't have to save it all for an email summary. Sometimes I'll explain why I've changed something that may not have seemed incorrect; other times, I'll explain an odd rule, like the "sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not" words; other times I just want to show my appreciation for a nicely written passage or a funny exchange between characters.

When all is said and done, I hope the writer recognizes that I've made suggestions that will improve the manuscript. Seeing "all that red ink" may come as a shock, but as long as the author knows I have his or her best interests in mind, the red is just a little ol' lipstick kiss at the end of a soon-to-be-great manuscript.

14 comments:

  1. I never think my manuscripts don't need a lot of help. And I appreciate all suggestions as most of them are spot-on.

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    1. From what I see, the better writers always recognize their need to improve, and are always open to suggestions.

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  2. I love when someone spots something that I didn't see. It shows they actually care enough to make sure my MS looks flawless. Or when they have suggestions on how to make something sound better. I don't claim to be an expert, but I also don't believe that there's such thing as a writer who's so good that they don't need to improve. Talent doesn't just cap out... well, unless you want it to.

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    1. Talent only caps out with those people who only want to be surrounded by yes men, because ultimately that makes a person unteachable.

      Interesting that you'd say "care enough"—I really do care about the books I'm working on, and because I get paid whether or not I make any suggestions, there is no need for me to make any if I don't think they'll be good for the book. Why would I risk alienating an author by saying things that aren't needed?

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  3. I think that "the red is just a little ol' lipstick kiss at the end of a soon-to-be-great manuscript" is a great way to look at it! I hope all your victims.... I mean, your clients... feel the same way. :)

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    1. Think of it like those good-bye kisses on the cheek from Mafia members . . .

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  4. The red lipstick kiss at the end is just an awesome way of 'presenting' your red pen of doom. Thanks! I think? No really, thanks. I'm lucky to call you my editor, and I know no matter what you do on the MS or say in the margins (which I love the back and forth) you have my back. Red my MS up all you want. In the end, we're a team and we must present each other's job & effort the best way possible—my writing isn't the only thing on the spotlight after all. ;)

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    1. You know if I had yours on real paper I would make real smooch marks on it just to make you laugh.

      I like the idea of presenting each other's jobs to the world. Really, if my work stinks, yours will, too. Both of us have our names on it and that's a terrifically wonderful responsibility. The world needs us to be great! NEEDS us, I say.

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  5. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

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    1. Thanks for the spam, two weeks in a row. It was also informative, though its excellence is definitely lacking.

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  6. A fresh set of eyes can always find something to correct. An extra space, a misplaced modifier--Oye! Very bad, indeed--inconsistent word spelling. I love it when someone tells me where my errors are.

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    1. I'm a stickler for consistency. Grey or gray? Hanger or hangar? Allen or Allan? I think sometimes authors just don't notice those things as they write, because they're focused on story and characters. That's what I love about the "find/replace" feature in Word. I can make things consistent and search the whole document at once, rather than relying on my memory.

      The extra spaces? I always feel like such an eagle-eyed editor when I spot those. Who would think a space would cause such excitement?

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  7. Red ink usuallly will help you in the long run. Better get it now thatn once the book is published. Critics won't help you...

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    1. That's right! Better to hear it from your editor than your readers.

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